Privilege, safety and belittling another's experience — unpacking the debate stirred online by Shaniera Akram

Updated 23 Sep, 2021 05:05pm

Images Staff

The simple truth is that a lot of Pakistanis don't feel safe. But the fact that Shaniera does, should not make us attack her.

Privilege is an interesting word — it draws lines between people and is often a cause for alienation. While everyone's experiences are valid and important, it is impossible to forget the massive role privilege plays when it comes to the way you experience things. And as a white woman married to a celebrity in Pakistan, Shaniera Akram is indeed privileged.

But that doesn't mean her opinion and experiences should be dismissed, especially given that she's not someone who has lived strictly in a bubble during her time in Pakistan. There are many people who live in Pakistan and not all of them are Pakistanis. Their experience should matter, but not be used as a benchmark.

Since there's a lot to unpack in what's been said so far, we're going to do it in two parts:

What does it mean to feel safe?

Recently, after the New Zealand cricket team bailed on their tour of Pakistan at the last minute, citing security concerns, many foreigners who have visited or lived in Pakistan took to Twitter to highlight how they've always felt safe in the country. Shaniera echoed this sentiment on Twitter. "There is no place in the world I feel more safe than in Pakistan," she wrote.

But many people took issue with her tweet. Several criticised her for not acknowledging how unsafe the country is for the majority of its citizens, especially women who face an alarmingly high prevalence of violence.

Despite the criticism, Shaniera said she "stand[s] by her words". "In terms of national security, I do feel completely safe in Pakistan, " she tweeted. "I know where we have come from and I have seen how hard we have worked to promote a peaceful nation, and it’s a safe feeling when you’re with 200 million people who all want the same thing — peace!"

While we're glad that Shaniera feels safe in Pakistan, we can all agree (including Shaniera) that this sense of safety does stem from being in a position of privilege. In a country like Pakistan, being white and being married to a public figure can make all the difference between safety and danger. Shaniera may not have lorded these privileges over anyone, but they are hard to underplay in Pakistan because they afford an individual class-based protection.

Yes, Shaniera never said she was speaking on behalf of all Pakistanis, especially women, but at the same time she has to be cognisant of the fact, having spent a decade in this country, that such blanket statements are often quoted to other women as an example of "look at how safe Pakistan is".

(We're still sniggering at how Kate Middleton came to Pakistan and wore shalwar kameez and all women in Pakistan heard was 'if she can, why can't you?' But we digress.)

Also, what is safe? Not expecting a bomb to go off when you go the park with your kids? Not having to worry about your valuables being stolen at gun point when you stop to buy fruits from a vendor on the street? Not having to strategise how you sit or stand in public transport so that no one gropes you? Not having the fear of your character assailed if you speak up against societal norms?

If Shaniera doesn't worry about any of the above, then we're genuinely glad for her but we hope she understands why those who do took an issue with her tweet.

Disagree, but don't belittle

Following the reactions to her tweets, the activist through her Instagram account decided to address her relationship with Pakistan.

"[I am] sick of being called a 'random white woman', 'rich gori, 'privileged white person', 'someone who occasionally lives in Pakistan' and 'celebrity's wife'. Do you not remember I have spent 10 years in Pakistan, fighting for the rights of our people, caring those who are underprivileged and standing up for the country I have grown to love.

"Yes I am white. Yes I am an Australian woman. I can't help that and I don't want to be ashamed of it. I'm proud of my heritage and of who I am. Yes I'm married to an incredible Pakistani man who happens to be a national hero. But I have never lauded that over anyone. And I will always stand up for what is right and just!

"I left everything I knew and loved for the last 10 years to contribute to the peace and growth of our country. I have missed weddings, birthdays, funerals, seeing my friends and family grow. I have missed time with my loved ones that I will never get back! Yes I have been scared, yes I have faced indecencies, hurt and pain but I am strong and I am determined.

"I could have sat back and enjoyed a good life; go to parties, shop, enjoy long lunches and doing nothing with my time but I didn't!" she continued. "I raised two boys who needed me and threw myself into every charity and foundation that needed my help. I spent every bit of my spare time in hospitals, orphanages, schools, caring for sick children, raising money, helping women's shelters, cleaning beaches, trekking to parts of the country without security to build water wells and distribute food, medicine and clothes and when I had another few minutes in my day I spent it fighting for our rights!

"I had a chance to make a small difference where I could, to build my name and use it not for selfish reasons but for the good of our country. I was given that opportunity and without hesitation, despite many warnings, I took it! I am so blessed that i have earned your trust, and have been able to give back the love that you have shown me. So like me or not, read my words and let them sink in. I am no random. I am Shaniera Akram. I have earned every bit of name and I am here to stay!" she said.

Shaniera asked followers to stop telling her to "mind her own business". "Let's stop this horrible trolling," she said. "I am a part of Pakistan whether you like it or not. I have earned my position here. So lets put our differences aside and work together and get on with our country even better than it is, for all who love it as much as I do!

"There are times you may not agree with my, and may even not like me. but remember I am human, I will make plenty of mistakes. but my intentions are good and there is always a method to my madness. Just trust in me and know, even if I make you feel uncomfortable for whatever reason, I will always have your best interests at heart!" she asserted.

Here's the thing: Shaniera Akram is not a foreign visitor to Pakistan, she's not someone who spent six months in Pakistan and decided to base her entire experience on that, and she is not someone who has lived in a cocoon in the country without any interest in its people — ALL types of people.

Shaniera is right when she says she can't change her ethnicity or privilege. It would be wrong to invalidate Shaniera's experience because that is unique and it's her own journey that is as important and valued as anyone else's. Pakistanis also need to be aware of their complicated relationship with colonialism; we tend to put white people on a pedestal and praise them as long as they abide by our standards, but then judge them harshly the moment we think they are not being Pakistani enough.

The simple truth is that a lot of Pakistanis don't feel safe. But the fact that Shaniera does, should not make us attack her. In fact, it should start a healthy debate on how people of different backgrounds experience this country and what still needs to be done for the majority to enjoy the sense of security that Shaniera does because everyone deserves to feel safe.

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